Fighting Domestic Violence, or Just Wasting Money?
Feds Spend Millions Without Tracking Results
The Justice Department has been spending hundreds of millions of dollars a year since 1994 in what seems to be an increasingly successful effort to stem violence against women, but it still has no idea of how well — or how poorly — the justice system is handling those cases.
That’s because the Clinton administration has, until this year, repeatedly turned down requests from the Justice Department’s fund-starved Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) for a $1 million study to track the treatment of domestic violence victims and their assailants — from arrest to bail to prosecution to sentencing — and to compare that treatment to the handling of non-domestic offenses.
Amazingly, no such survey has ever been undertaken on a nationwide basis.
The conventional wisdom is that domestic violence cases often don’t lead to conviction or to sentences that fit the crime, because the victims change their minds or because prosecutors and judges don’t think the cases are important enough. But that “wisdom” rests on nothing more than anecdotal evidence that may not reflect what usually happens when domestic violence is brought to the attention of law enforcement officials.
Pep talk from Reno
The lack of an objective, statistically valid study to answer basic questions about justice system processing of domestic violence cases is no small matter.
As Patrick Langan, senior statistician for BJS, points out, the government has no way of comparing the law enforcement system’s performance now with its performance earlier, after the reforms engendered by the 1994 Violence Against Women Act became well-established. Every day’s delay simply invites more guesswork, and it leaves any claimed accomplishments open to attack.
Officials can toot their horn all they want, as Attorney General Janet Reno did at a May 11 meeting of the American Bar Association’s Domestic Violence Civil Law Institute. With the 1994 Violence Against Women Act awaiting renewal this year, she gave what amounted to a pep talk — and she had every reason to be enthusiastic.
As a new BJS study released this month shows, the number of women who were victims of nonlethal violent attacks by their husbands or boyfriends, ex-husbands or ex-boyfriends, went down by 21 percent from 1993 to 1998.
Murders by intimates showed an even more striking long-range decline, from 3,000 in 1976 to 1,830 in 1998, a drop of 74 percent. Men were the biggest beneficiaries, however, of the reduction in domestic homicides. The number of black men killed by their partners fell 74 percent over the last two decades while the killing of white men went down 44 percent.
While the number of black women killed by their partners went down 45 percent, the murders of white women actually went up 3 percent, from 849 in 1976 to 876 in 1998.
Better late than never?
Longer prison sentences are no doubt a major reason for the reduction in domestic violence. As studies in Massachusetts have shown, almost three of every four men brought into court on petitions for protection orders have criminal histories of some sort, and almost half of them have records for violent crime.
Lock up a criminal for a felony of any kind and you will very often be locking up someone who has been beating up his wife or girlfriend and getting away with it because it’s just a misdemeanor.
Nationally, however, there are no statistics documenting the criminal histories of those who commit domestic violence or showing how many were under restraining orders at the time of their offenses. The BJS program Langan has proposed would come up with that data and much more, measuring the justice system’s response to domestic violence in a “baseline” year and periodically after that. It would show which reforms are working and what more needs to be done.
Unfortunately, it’s too late to measure the before-and-after impact of the $800 million in Violence Against Woman Act grants that the Justice Department has so far handed out to states, territories and the District of Columbia. But better late than never, as Langan indicates.
In the hands of Congress
For instance, he says, the study might find that, compared to other violent offenses, domestic cases “more often lead to reduced charges, delays and continuance, dismissal rather than conviction, probation rather than prison, and below-average sentences.”
It might also show that more of those charged with a domestic violence crime — compared to those charged with a non-domestic offense — were on bail or probation or parole, or subject to a restraining order at the time of the offense.
The architect of pace-setting studies on violence against women dating back to the mid-1980s, Langan first proposed this comprehensive look at the justice system’s performance in May 1995 and kept repeating the request every year after that. For reasons that were never explained to him, it was batted down at the Justice Department or, more often, at the White House Office of Management and Budget, until this year when it was finally included in the administration’s proposed budget for fiscal 2001.
Now, all Congress has to do is say yes to finding out where those hundreds of millions of dollars are being well spent, and where they aren’t.